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July 2004
The United Gateway: Activating Community Resources, Maximizing Human Impact
By Ellison Clary

      In the telecommunications biz, a “gateway” is a network node equipped for interfacing with another network. For United Way of Central Carolinas (UWCC), that is an apt description of the way they interface between community resources and community needs.

      Supporting 99 member agencies in an effort to mobilize the caring power of the community, UWCC, under the direction of Gloria Pace King as president, has more than doubled annual contributions, from $17.5 million in 1993, the year before she got here, to $37.4 million in 2003. Additionally, UWCC is recognized nationally as one of the best, with low administrative expenses and high efficiency, ranking ahead of agencies in Atlanta, Richmond and the Hampton Roads area of Virginia which includes Norfolk.

      Even King admits that UWCC has achieved remarkable success in the last decade.

The United Way of Central Carolinas was founded in Charlotte in 1931, to help people affected by the Great Depression. It was then called the Emergency Relief and sought to reduce the number of charitable appeals made to the business community to conducting a single fundraising drive. That 1931 campaign raised over $139,000. Since then there have been a number of mergers of the United Way of Mecklenburg County with those of Union County, Cabarrus County, and Mooresville-Lake Norman, resulting in the presently named organization of the Central Carolinas.

      It was shortly after the reform of the national United Way (UW) organization in the early ’90s that King found herself heading up the organization here in Charlotte.

Let’s be clear, she found us; it wasn’t the other way around. She was a senior vice president in the Cleveland United Way, which routinely raised more than $50 million a year. But when she heard the top United Way job in Charlotte was open, something clicked.

“I automatically said, ‘That’s my job.’”

      Her Cleveland boss, the man who told her about the opening, added an assessment. “You’ll never get it.”

      Charlotte’s Don Sanders was retiring after 34 years at the agency, the last 19 as president. UW people from across the country, about 200, coveted the Charlotte slot. King had lived her entire life in Cleveland, and, by the way, besides being a woman, King is black and Catholic.

      But she had credentials. She had been president and chief executive of the Visiting Nurse Association of Cleveland for over seven years and subsequently an executive of the Cleveland United Way for six years, after 10 years as a volunteer. She had raised $10 million in the last Cleveland campaign.

      She did her homework. She subscribed to The Charlotte Observer. She requested information from The Chamber. She’d been through Charlotte briefly but, on her own, she visited again before her in-person interview, which she aced. By spring 1994, the job was hers.

      She worked long and hard, and the staff did, too. “I would get in [to the office] at 6:30 a.m. and the most fascinating thing,” she smiles, “I was never the first person here.” She didn’t mind staying until 8 p.m., “because I’m about winning,” she says.

      But hard work was only the beginning. “I had to figure out how to survive in this culture,” she remembers. For instance, she had once admitted to a reporter that she did not like country music. “That was on the front page of the doggone Observer,” she says ruefully.

      Early on, people at breakfast meetings teased her about being from the North and eating grits. “History lesson,” she told them. “The black people in the North are primarily from the South. All black people I know eat grits. I still cannot get used to white people eating grits.”

      But she finds more substantive differences between Charlotte and Cleveland. Charlotteans are so polite that it is hard to gauge how they really feel, she says. On the other hand, Charlotte has a leadership base that has always been very accessible.

      “[First Union chief Ed] Crutchfield and [Bank of America CEO Hugh] McColl and John Belk [of Belk department stores], they were genuinely interested in what I was doing and were very helpful in giving me good advice,” King says.

      Her tenure has spanned Charlotte’s leadership changes, and she feels that’s a positive, since she’s gotten to know the new honchos as they have moved up. “Ken Lewis [chairman of Bank of America] worked with us before, and so have lots of folks at Wachovia. I haven’t felt like I had to start over again.”

      Another challenge King found in Charlotte was the region’s racial issues which tended to “fly under the radar screen,” and it was hurting the United Way. “This organization in the black community was viewed as a white corporate organization. The black community didn’t feel attached to it at all. You hire somebody like me, instantaneously, I’m supposed to make up all that ground. I made up a lot of ground, but I’ve worked hard to do it. Real hard.”

 

Charlotte Leadership Serious About Volunteerism

      Maybe Charlotte’s best attribute, King says, is that civic leadership is serious about every company chieftain taking his or her place in volunteer activities. Some newcomer execs have brushed her off, only to be back in touch shortly, after someone has explained the lay of the land.

      “Leadership says we stand for volunteerism, we stand for philanthropy,” she smiles.

      Some of Charlotte’s corporate leaders have been particularly helpful to King because throughout her tenure she has depended on them to steer her straight. Jim Hynes of Hynes, Inc. and Bill Vandiver, now retired from Bank of America, were like ‰ that. “They listened to me,” she says, “but, more important, I listened to them.”

      Hynes, who sold his consumer products brokerage business to the employees, but still consults for the firm, ran the United Way campaign in 1995 and chaired the 1999 drive.

      “When I think of her, I think of caring and energy,” Hynes says. “She’s one of the people who make a difference in our community. She’s a role model and we’re lucky to have her.”

      Since Vicki Wilson-McElreath moved to Charlotte five years ago as managing partner for Pricewaterhouse Coopers, she also has been close to King. Wilson-McElreath ran the 2002 campaign.

      “She [King] is really good at reaching out to people and trying to pull them into the network,” Wilson-McElreath says.

      Contrary to some non-profit leaders, Wilson-McElreath maintains, King sees herself not as an administrator but as a part of the community. “She looks broadly at how the United Way impacts the community at large,” she says. “That’s how really successful folks run their own operations here.”

      And with respect to running her operation, King turns more serious: “Let me tell you something,” she says with conviction. “When Ken Lewis and [Wachovia chief executive] Ken Thompson evaluate me, they expect me to generate revenue, to be morally ethical, to deliver the bottom line, to be efficient, to have a good staff, to have a good name in the community. That’s not easy.”

      Community connection is essential, she says, because many hold the misguided notion that the United Way funds services only for poor people.

      “We have to make sure that the people in Ballantyne, the Peninsula, Pineville and Davidson understand that there are problems all over this community,” she says. “It’s about people with disabilities, credit problems, domestic violence, substance abuse – and the people come in every size and color.”

      She remembers recently visiting a member organization’s function and seeing joy in the face of a wheelchair-bound child as staffers whirled him around to the beat of a recorded tune.

      Still, some folks tell King that $38 million is too much for the United Way to raise. She begs to differ. With Charlotte and surrounding areas growing like gangbusters, she says, the challenge is how to meet the needs of the central city as well as those of the outlying areas.

      She points out that Charlotte is the nation’s 8th wealthiest city, measured by median household income. “Our $38 million is a fraction of what should be raised,” she says. “The economy has an effect on everybody, but we’re still growing. The challenge for us [at UWCC] is to get our tentacles spread out so we’re not so dependent on Duke Power, Wachovia, Bank of America and the hospitals.”                           

 

A ‘Mutual Fund’ of Services

      King believes wholeheartedly in her mission. “The United Way is the premiere health and human services organization in the world,” she says. “Here in Charlotte, it is the go-to organization for help in human services. We are a mutual fund of services. We have 99 organizations with hundreds of programs. If you donate to the United Way, you’re allowing us to make the investment for you and you have the expectation that you will have a positive return on that investment. We work hard to get you that.”

      King and her staff require member agencies to evaluate their programs and measure their effectiveness, she says. They continue to tweak the roster of member organizations, taking in new groups as there is justification.

      And there’s recognition of that, another point King makes. “My biggest surprise is that people say to me, ‘Gloria, thank you for what you do for this community.’ Nobody ever said that in Cleveland,” she says.

      When she praises Charlotte’s warmth, she’s not referring to the climate. “I don’t know why we don’t brand the people,” she says. “They’re marvelous.”

      King lives in Huntersville and enjoys having both her children nearby. Daughter Kara, 29, is working toward a Ph.D. in biology at UNC Charlotte and son Leslie, 27, is a Charlotte tax lawyer. A single parent since the kids were 6 and 8, she calls Kara and Leslie her best friends.

      She has golfing buddies and other friends in a book club. She gets up at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays for Pilates and she’s crazy about music, especially rhythm & blues and smooth jazz. But she’s expanding her tastes.

      “I’m learning to appreciate hip-hoppers because I think they’re on to something,” she smiles, then adds another reason. “Those are the people who are the philanthropists of the future.”

      What about the future for the United Way of Central Carolinas? “I would like to see it have much more community impact,” she says with conviction. “I would like for this United Way to be the top United Way in the country. I don’t have to raise the most money, I just want to be the best. I want people to look to Charlotte if they want to know how to run a good United Way.”

      Will she lead this United Way for another decade? Maybe, she says, if we’ll have her.

      For now, she hopes her mother and father, both deceased, would have been proud of her. Born poor in the South, both sought and found a better life in the North.

     “To my mom and dad, it would have been especially meaningful for me to succeed here in the South.”
Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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